Priest, 80, taps into youthful energy in ‘retirement’

By Tim Keenan | The Michigan Catholic

Fr. Don Walker can’t see reason to leave ministry

Dearborn Heights — Like all priests, Fr. Don Walker heard the words from Hebrews 7:17, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek,” proclaimed during his 1958 ordination.

Fr. Don Walker shows images on a TV screen from his 54 years of priestly ministry during his 80th birthday party.

Fr. Walker took that line of Scripture quite literally. With 54 years of active ministry under his belt, he’s still going strong as administrator of Our Lady of Grace in Dearborn Heights and St. Hilary in Redford.

Between 250 and 300 people from those parishes and others from Fr. Walker’s life in ministry gathered at the St. Sabina Parish hall in Dearborn Heights on Feb. 25 to celebrate their priest’s 80th birthday.

Among the revelers was Fr. Walker’s classmate and best friend Fr. Leo Sabourin, administrator at St. Constance in Taylor. “We’ve spent more time together at the Grand Canyon than we’ve spent at our parishes,” joked Fr. Sabourin, who himself turns 80 in July.

Not only is Fr. Walker a superior canyon hiker, according to Fr. Sabourin, but he’s a pretty decent tap dancer, a skill he put on display during the birthday gathering.

“I learned to tap dance between the ages of 4 and 9,” recalled Fr. Walker, who added that his father had him perform at various Knights ofColumbus, St. Vincent de Paul and ushers’ club events. “I don’t keep up with it, but there’s a certain amount of it that’s anchored in my head and I can’t get rid of it. Somehow a little bit of it still connects with my feet.”

Fr. Walker proved to be nimble on his feet throughout his ministry as well, juggling parish work at St. Mary of Redford in Detroit and St. Martha in Dearborn with teaching during his time as part of the faculty at Sacred Heart Seminary High School in the 1960s.

“I think teaching was a wonderful experience,” Fr. Walker said. “A lot of it I didn’t totally appreciate until the years had gone on, but some of those kids — and not all of them were ordained — are some of the most dedicated, conscientious and worthwhile people. Even those that were not ordained really are very good Catholic men.”

When the seminary high school closed, Fr. Walker became pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Detroit, where he served from 1970 until 1989. During that time, he also was administrator of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Detroit. He was parochial vicar at St. Blase Parish in Sterling Heights and St. Robert Bellarmine in Redford before becoming pastor at St. Martha, where he served from 2000 to 2006.

“I enjoy working with the people,” said Fr. Walker of what keeps him working well beyond the usual priest retirement age of 70. “Some are conservative. Some are liberal. Both of them have something valuable to say, and as a priest you’ve got to stay in the middle and be relevant.”

When he left St. Martha, Fr. Walker expected to live the quiet life of a senior priest and perhaps do some writing, but the Church had other plans, and he was OK with that.

Fr. Don Walker displays his tap-dancing abilities for parishioners in the parish hall at St. Sabina in Dearborn Heights during his 80th birthday party.

“I had been off for five or six months; then I could hardly stand myself sitting home, and I don’t play a lot of golf,” Fr. Walker recalled with a smile. “I just felt I had enough life and interest in doing what I’d been doing for more than 40 years at that time, I just wanted to continue.”

And so he did, first as administrator at St. Christopher Parish in Detroit for four months in 2007, then as administrator of Our Lady of Grace after a mere two-month break.

“He came at a time that was very critical to Our Lady of Grace,” recalled Deacon Robert DeWitt, who has ministered at the parish for 25 years. “Fr. Don was retired. He could have said ‘no.’

“He’s a good-hearted man and has a way of helping people,” Deacon DeWitt said. “His words are inspirational, and he’s a caring person.”

In July 2009, Fr. Walker was asked to also administer St. Hilary, which he naturally accepted. “He has a lot of energy to take on two parishes,” Deacon DeWitt added. “I’m amazed at the energy he has to take on that role. He’s a very dedicated man. You’re not going to find that too much anymore.”

Fr. Walker’s dedication isn’t lost on his parishioners, as evidenced by the large turnout for his birthday party.

“We have been so lucky to have Fr. Don come and be our administrator,” said Sue Vasiloff, chairwoman of the Our Lady of Grace Parish Council and a 31-year parishioner. “It’s been a thrill to have him. He’s so vibrant, so full of energy and he still wants to be a pastor so he stays active with us. He says all the Masses, does all the administrative work.”

Sean Nabozny, a parishioner at St. Hilary since 1999, said Fr. Walker has a unique preaching style.

“He’s older so there’s a little bit of old school, but he’s not all fire and brimstone. He brings humor and lightheartedness to things. There’s a deep meaning to him. He’s full of love and peace.”

After contemplating a retirement of writing, Fr. Walker now plans to continue in parish work as long as he is able.

“I’ll continue as long as the Lord gives me the health to do so,” Fr. Walker said. “I told both parishes that as long as we can pay our bills and I am healthy that I would continue to stay with those parishes and live on together. And even if I happen to die, don’t tell the archbishop. Just stuff my body, stand me in the corner and put a smile on my face.”